Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sermon -- 29 August 2010

PROPER 17 | 14 PENTECOST — 29 August 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1,10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16 | Luke 14:1,7-14

“Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.”

That’s not a quotation from one of the Scripture readings this morning. It’s from Auntie Mame. (You remember Auntie Mame!)

In many ways a banquet, a dinner party, is a telling microcosm of human life. A good party is an occasion of refreshment and joy, of friendship, of hospitality freely given and openly received, a moment in which we share our lives with one another, and so become more completely ourselves. A good party builds community — unity together — which is, after all, God’s ultimate plan and destiny for the whole created universe. The Holy Eucharist which we are celebrating is, among other things, Jesus’ party with his people, a foretaste of the eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God.

But if a party can be the microcosm or the paradigm or model of all that is good and possible for human life, a party can also be a microcosm of the things that are wrong with human life. I suspect some of us have had the experience of attending a truly dreadful party, the kind where you are desperate for a plausible excuse to go home early! In the Gospel today, Jesus has been invited to a party, apparently a rather posh dinner party, but it’s not turning out to be one of your more successful soirĂ©es. Jesus takes advantage of the occasion to make some remarks about what he sees going on around him. (Have you ever noticed how Jesus isn’t real shy about doing that kind of thing? Not always the most tactful guest, either, is he?) “Look here, people,” Jesus says, “if you keep squabbling and pushing to see how high you can get yourself placed, you’ll very likely end up not only disappointed but rather badly embarrassed as well. [The fools are starving to death!] Don’t worry so much about your status! Have a little more modesty — and (who knows?) you may find yourself pleasantly surprised and honored!”

Very common-sense advice about how to behave at a party. And underlying it, of course, some profound truth about life. If our attitude toward life is “Get out of it everything you can, Take all you can get, Look out first for Number One,” then we will ultimately find that life is unsatisfying, unrewarding, and even hostile. That’s so. Show me somebody who grumps around all the time about what a bad deal life is, and I’ll show you somebody who’s trying to get something out of life. If we insist that life be on our own self-centered terms, then our lives become turned in upon themselves, small, nitpicking, guarded, closed off. We become obsessed with the fear that someone is getting the better of us, and we waste our lives trying to insure that other people owe us more than we owe them.

If, on the other hand, we take the stance toward our lives of seeking to give rather than to get, receiving life in thankful wonder as the gift of God that it is rather than as a right to be claimed and seized as something due us, then we are truly free to live.

This is what the Letter to the Hebrews is getting at this morning in the Epistle. “Let mutual love continue,” it says. Don’t be all hung up in your own selves. Life and the fullness of life comes to you as you give yourself away. This is one of the reasons why the New Testament repeatedly urges hospitality, especially to strangers, and caring for the sick and the prisoners — things that you’re not going to be paid back for. “Don’t be stingy with your life and with yourself,” the epistle is saying to us. “You may be so busy trying to safeguard and protect yourself that what life is really all about will pass you right by.” And then it goes on, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” We may not be too sure we want to hear that! It doesn’t sit very well with our culture’s fascination with possessions, with success, with growth, with bigger-and-better, with getting ahead in the world. The ideals of financial prosperity, the “self-made man,” showing the proper image to the world, are all drummed into our heads from our earliest childhood, and every day since, by our schools, our literature, our entertainment, the barrage of advertising constantly bombarding our minds. We all know perfectly well that material possessions cannot buy the truly good life — we’ve seen often enough how the lives of people we know, or even our own lives, have been damaged or even destroyed simply by having too much — and yet still we won’t really believe it. We’re brainwashed into thinking that true value is, ultimately, economic value. (That, incidentally, is the heresy, and the fatal flaw, of Marxism. But our consumerist capitalist society is equally guilty of it.) Possessions — not only money but status, reputation, image, “What-will-people-think?”, “How-will-I-look-to-the-neighbors?”, pride, self-centeredness, independence, self-sufficiency, self-fulfillment. If we stake our lives on these things, our lives will perish with these things. If we make these the end of our lives, they will be the end of our lives!

“Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.” Auntie Mame was right. Jesus goes to a party and finds the guests squabbling over the place cards! What do we want? What is it that we really want? Do we want the seats of honor at the feast? Well, we can try to take them, I suppose, but it’s not a very sure thing, very likely to blow up in our faces, and even if we succeed, what have we got? After all, what difference does it really make? Who cares? God? I doubt it. Or do we want life, life received as gift from God the giver of life? That we can have. That we can always have — the banquet of eternal life, now and forever — the banquet to which Jesus is inviting us all and calling us all to join him at the head table.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sermon -- 22 August 2010

PROPER 16 / 13 PENTECOST — 22 August 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | Hebrews 12:18-29 | Luke 13:10-17

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

We’ve heard a lot in recent years from folks (folks in the newspapers, and folks on TV, and folks on the Net, and all the various places where “folks” hang out) who say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

(Do any of you consider yourselves to be “spiritual but not religious”? Okay. Are there any of you who would consider yourselves “religious but not spiritual”? Ha. You might want to talk with Elizabeth next month!)

The problem is that we throw these words around without being very clear about what we mean by them. “Spiritual” may be a fairly clear notion, although it covers a range of meanings. Generally, it seems to me and perhaps you’d agree (or perhaps not), “spirituality” has to do with the conviction that our human life has some sort of transcendent dimension, however we might understand or define that. In some way, and there is a wide variety of ways of thinking or talking about it, there is “more to us” than “just this.” Healthy spirituality looks beyond ourselves, both horizontally and vertically. (There is also a so-called “spirituality” that is mostly just about me. You may recall that Robert Bellah a generation ago pointed to “Sheilaism” as tending in this direction. [Habits of the Heart, 1985, pages 221, 235])

“Religion” is a much trickier concept. It seems to include a variety of notions, generally having to do with how human beings are related to God, or the gods, or whatever. St. Augustine and others thought that the word religio was derived from religare, “to bind together.” (Cicero, on the other hand, thought the word came from the verb relegere, “to go over again,” but I don’t really see his point, so he must not be right about this!) We use “religion” in a variety of ways. One of its narrow senses, for instance — used more often among Roman Catholics than among us as some of you may remember, although we use it this way too occasionally, is to say a person is “a religious,” meaning he or she is a member of a monastic or other vowed community — monks, nuns, friars, sisters, for example. They are bound (religati) to their communities by their religious vows. This leads to a distinction — again more common among Roman Catholics than among us —between the “religious” clergy and the “secular” clergy — i. e., priests who are vowed members of religious orders, as apposed to priests who are diocesan parish clergy.

In a much wider and by far the more common context, of course, “religion” refers to systems of belief and/or behavior and/or ways-of-life that have to do with human relationships with and in reference to God (or the gods). Although there are, for instance, some traditions of Buddhism that seem not to have a place for a God. Whether therefore they are really a “religion” depends on how you define “religion.”

(“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.” [Through the Looking Glass] )

The Buddhists can speak for themselves on the issue of religion! Perhaps they might be willing to be the original “spiritual but not religious” folks! Although many forms of Buddhism have traditions and ways of life that many would consider “religious.”

I will confess that I have a great deal of sympathy with the “spiritual but not religious” stance. Critical, but sympathetic. The fact of the matter is, “religion” gets a lot of bad press these days, and a very great deal of it is fully deserved. And I am not just talking about “them,” I am talking about us too. It seems to me that a great deal of the fussing that is going on in the Anglican Communion, as well as in our Episcopal Church, is coming from folks who are, as I like to put it, “more religious than God.”

It’s really no wonder that “religion” isn’t doing very well these days. There’s so much “religion” going around, and a lot of it is pretty appalling. Especially those parts that focus on how some other people are going to hell.

(By the way, I am convinced that it is entirely possible to go to hell, if that’s what we really want. And I’m afraid some people really do want that — that is, they choose themselves over God. It’s an eternal choice, but it has its roots in now. But the criteria by which this judgment is revealed are I think very different from what some “religious” folks think.)

So I tend to be a little cautious about “religion.” What we call “religion” is
meant to be a means to our spiritual growth and maturity and fulfillment, with God and in community with all humankind and indeed with all creation. “Religion” is not an end in itself. Jesus did not say, “I have come that you may have religion and have it more abundantly.”

And I think this is one of the things that Jesus is getting at in the Gospel today. Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for many years. And the “religious” folks get their shorts in a twist because Jesus did this on the Sabbath Day, when the religious law prohibited anything that might be defined as “work.” And Jesus responds, in effect: “You people just do not have any clue at all, do you?” Jesus says, “You hypocrites!” I don’t think he means “You phonies!” exactly, which is what we usually mean by the word “hypocrite,” and in classical Greek the word can have the sense of a stage-actor or a dissembler. But the roots of the word carry something of the notion of “faulty judgment” — in that sense, “hypocrites” are folks who just don’t really understand what they’re talking about. “Hypocrite” is not too far from “clueless.”

Jesus says: Look here. Freeing this woman from her crippling bondage is much more what the Kingdom of God is about than keeping religious rules, whatever value those may have in their proper context.

And the proper context of all religion is just this: the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sermon -- 15 August 2010

PROPER 15 / 12 PENTECOST — 15 August 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00 am

Isaiah 5:1-7 | Psalm 80:1-2,8-18 | Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

You may remember — or maybe you don’t, and that’s okay — I’m not trying to lay any guilt trips on you, or at least not yet! — that last Sunday the Gospel reading, from just a few verses before today’s reading, began: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” This passage from the Gospel stuck in my mind this week, at least in part because this passage was also the appointed Gospel reading this past Wednesday when we commemorated St. Clare of Assisi. As a young woman Clare was inspired by the preaching of St. Francis to adopt a similar religious life of complete poverty and utter devotion to God and living out of God’s love, and there gathered around her a community of women, associated with the Franciscans, who became known as the Poor Clares.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” — that’s what we heard last Sunday, and what we heard this past Wednesday. These are important words. How often do we get suckered in by the fairly common and allegedly “religious” but utterly false notion that God is “out to get us,” that God doesn’t really like us very much, that somehow we have to earn God’s approval? What is it we don’t understand about “God loves us”? Not “God loves us if…” Not “God loves us when…” Just “God loves us!” “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Okay. Got that?

So now today, just a few verses later in St. Luke’s Gospel, we get this: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

(Well, as a matter of fact, we had rather thought that you came to bring peace to the earth! We were under the distinct impression that that's exactly what you were about! “The Peace of the Lord be always with you …” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you …”?) “Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you,” Jesus said, “but I do not give to you as the world gives …

This paradox of God's great love for us and the sternness of the divine word of judgment runs all the way through the Bible. We hear it in the First Reading this morning, for instance, from Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard.” The Lord plants a vineyard (God’s people Israel) with great love and care and devotion and hard work— but what happens? Instead of clusters of grapes (’onabeyim), the Lord’s vineyard produces sour, rotten fruit (be’ushyim — two completely different words in Hebrew). God expected from the beloved Israel mishpat but got mispah (a pun in Hebrew, untranslatable into English: instead of justice, bloodshed); God expected tsedhakah but got tse‘akah (instead of justice, a cry of distress).

It's easy, and it's attractive, to fasten upon one of these aspects of God's self-revelation to us, love and judgment, at the expense of the other. I prefer to hear about God's forgiving love! -- God's eager yearning to bring us together into union. Although I can see where some people might rather prefer the notion of a fearsome, wrathful God; it does provide some nice simple answers and meets some psychological needs, even if it does demand a rather cheerless outlook on life! (And especially for those folks who tend to be fearsome, wrathful people themselves!) But here, as so often, the tension, the contradiction, is only apparent. It's not that God is inconsistent, but that our perspective is so limited. God is always more than we can ever say or know about God.

And, after all, we do not love our children by letting them get away with anything they like and never calling them to account. Parents who let their children grow up undisciplined, untrained, uncorrected may seem like sweeties, but they're doing their kids no favor. They have spoiled them; they really have not cared about them, they have not cared for them.

But God cares for us. And so it sometimes appears to us that God is a little tough. God's love is no marshmallow — God's love is more than just warm fuzzies. Because God loves us, God tells us the truth - even though we don't always want to hear the truth. One truth that we must hear and understand, even though we may not always much care for it, is that between the Reign of God and the dominions of this world and its worldly values and priorities there is a great gulf. This gulf is not of God's making, but of our own - of humankind's making. We have a perverse determination to have things our own way, to cut ourselves away from the Kingdom of God, to wall ourselves off into a narrow, restricted, and largely hollow reality of our own devising. And given where we are, and what we have done to ourselves, restoration to God’s Kingdom can hardly come without pain, wrenching, strife, contention, division. Those who are faithful citizens of God's Kingdom must necessarily seem a traitor to the perversities that twist and distort this fallen world's values.

The Gospel of Christ brings division - not because it is God's purpose to be divisive (God's purpose is to bring us together), but because the world resists and rejects God's purpose. And so even families can become divided in the face of a value higher than family, in the face of a loyalty more demanding than blood. Jesus warns us: this is how it is! Be prepared for it!

In the end there must be decision and commitment: God and God's Reign - or ourselves? We must choose; to choose one is to reject the other; not to choose is to choose ourselves. To choose God is to reject the distorted values of this world - and thus to suffer the fury of a world scorned: ridicule, estrangement, hatred, persecution. Hardly what the world would call peace. But then, there's not very much evidence that the world knows very much about what real peace is, is there? “I do not give to you as the world gives . . .” Or as the hymn [#661] puts it: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod; yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sermon -- 1 August 2010

PROPER 13 / 10 PENTECOST — 1 August 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant— 9:00 a.m.

Hosea 11:1-11 | Psalm 107:1-9,43 | Colossians 3:1-11 | Luke 12:13-21

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

The first reading this morning is from the 11th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Hosea. We’ve never read this particular passage at the Sunday Eucharist before — it’s assigned to this Sunday in Track One of the Revised Common Lectionary.

(Perhaps you’re aware that in the Long Green Summer and Fall season of Sundays, the Revised Common Lectionary provides a choice for the First Readings between Track One and Track Two. And you may not really care, and that’s quite okay! Karon knows about this choice, because she checks with the priest for that Sunday to see which Track he or she wants to follow in order to do the Sunday bulletin. In Track One, if you haven’t drifted off yet, the Old Testament readings follow a semi-continuous sequence from Sunday to Sunday, just as the Epistle and the Gospel do. It’s related to the other readings only coincidentally, which means, surprisingly often. Track Two is basically the same as our previous lectionary that goes back to the 1970s, and in that track the Old Testament reading is selected because it has, or at least is perceived as having, some connection to the Gospel reading for that Sunday. That’s the advantage of Track Two. The advantage of Track One is that there is somewhat more continuity from week to week in the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. This year, for instance, the first readings in Track One are mostly from the prophets: we heard about the prophet Elijah, and then about his successor Elisha, and then we had a couple of weeks from Amos and now we are getting a couple of weeks of Hosea. Amos and Hosea were prophets in the northern kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel (as opposed to the southern kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah — and all too often they were opposed!) in the middle of the 8th Century BC. The messages of Amos and Hosea were basically “If you people don’t get your act together, God will send the King of Assyria from the East to whup you.” And as it turned out, the people didn’t, and God did.

Anyway, in Track One, beginning next week the Old Testament readings are from Isaiah for a couple of weeks, and then from Jeremiah for most of the rest of the fall. The Track Two readings are an assortment, related to the Gospel reading for the day. Which one you get depends on what priest you get that Sunday!

Anyway: Although we’ve never used this reading at the Sunday Eucharist before, it’s possible that this verse rings a bell for you [you might want to put a finger in your pew Bible, even if you don’t usually follow along with the readings — page 632]:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

Yeah. Where have we heard that before? Well, it’s quoted in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter two, verses 14 & 15, just after the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. An angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream and tells him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, because King Herod is out to kill him: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Hosea], ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’”

Oh, right! I thought that sounded familiar!

Of course, if we look carefully at today’s reading from Hosea, it seems that Matthew is taking this verse pretty much out of context. (What? Take a Bible verse out of context? Oh, surely not! Who would do such a thing?) This verse is not a prediction of the return of the Christ Child from being a refugee in Egypt. It’s about how God brought God’s people Israel out of Egyptian slavery into the promised land hundreds of years before — Israel referred to here metaphorically as God’s child, “my son.”

Oh, wait…

Well, maybe Matthew isn’t taking this verse so much out of context after all. Just with a bit of insight and imagination.

Anyway, Hosea isn’t predicting the future (at least not that he knows of!), he’s reflecting on the past and what it means for the present (which is what prophets do). And he’s saying here, “Look, God brought us out from bondage into freedom, and what have you people done? You’ve messed up! Over and over! You’re worshipping the pagan Canaanite gods, the Baals! What is it you didn’t understand about God’s command, ‘Don’t worship the Baals!’? This isn’t just like going to a different church, you know! But God still loves you, even though there are consequences for what you are doing. The Assyrian Empire will conquer the Kingdom of Israel, and you will be scattered from Mesopotamia to Egypt.” (This wasn’t an organized exile into captivity, like the Babylonians would do with the southern Kingdom of Judah a hundred fifty or so years later, but it was the beginning of the diaspora, the dispersion, of the people of Israel into the surrounding world.) But Hosea goes on, “But God still loves you. God will not utterly destroy you the way he destroyed Admah and Zeboiim.” (Who? Where? Admah and Zeboiim were neighboring cities to Sodom and Gomorrah, and shared in their destruction by fire and brimstone, or as we might say, volcanic ash and lava, back in the Olden Days.) “God says, ‘I will not destroy you, Ephraim’.” (Ephraim was the largest of the northern tribes; here it’s a figure of speech in which one stands for all.) “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.”

God is not “out to get us,” as so many people even today seem to think. God loves us, and wants to bring us home, even when we have messed up. The prophet Hosea lived and proclaimed God’s word over eight hundred years before Jesus Christ, but he still had a great insight into the Good News of the Kingdom of God. This is Gospel.